Why ticks are good…

Horse herd on green grassy hill

Ask and it shall be given

It often happens in my life. A question is asked, by me or to me, and things start to unfold. Like a carpet unrolling before me, leading my mind. The path does not always lead to the answer. In fact it tends to lead to more questions. But the act of questioning always brings more clarity.

Why do ticks exist?

Anyway, the other day, as we did our daily tick check of the horses, Prasado said a bit grumpily, “Why do ticks exist anyway? Is there any point to them?”

Clunk clink and my cogs start turning. As we live in an interconnected and harmonious universe, then everything (yes, even ticks!) must be beneficial. Everything has a role to play and if I don’t see what that is, I should look more closely.

Ticks are yucky

Ticks are the bane of our life here in the Alentejo. As soon as the heat of summer subsides and the grass starts to grow, out they come. They invade the horses’ manes leaving sticky yellow goo, and sometimes suppurating wounds. We must always be watchful for the diseases they carry. And squashing blood filled ticks is just yucky! Every day we do a thorough check and remove any ticks we find on the animals.

Re-viewing the tick

That morning, as I searched through Doodle’s mane, doing the job of an egret, my neurons started firing. Out of random dots a picture emerged:

Ticks are blood suckers
Blood letting is a cure for excess iron (read more about this in one of my favourite books, Survival of the Sickest)
Horses do not excrete iron
One of the major problems for domesticated horses (in Northern Europe at least) is the so-called Metabolic syndrome
One of the precursors to the development of this syndrome is iron overload
Worms also cause bleeding
Is it possible blood letting is important to horse health? That over-control of parasites is causing illness?

And what about worms?

As is the way of things, a separate chain of events revealed another angle of the puzzle.

As a lifelong horse guardian I was deeply indoctrinated with the idea that worms are evil and must be killed. Regular worming has been a standard part of horse management for generations. As a child I remember the vet coming to tube worm the horses in the autumn, not so pleasant. As a teenager I remember the excitement of ivermectin paste, so handy, so efficient. Now you could control worms without the vet.

A couple of decades later and worms are resistant to ivermectin. So vets recommend fecal egg counts and worming only if necessary. It is no longer thought necessary to wipe out every last worm. The theory is that a healthy horse can tolerate a certain level of worm infestation (hear the language). This is a step forward, but still rooted in the adversarial system of healthcare we have been raised upon.

Personally, I now see worms as an important part of the horse’s system, and an overload of worms as a symptom of lowered immunity. So I mostly leave my horses to balance their own wormload. They have enough anthelmintic herbs to eat if they feel they need help. I keep their stresses low and their immune system optimised. I also do regular fecal egg counts, to check for worm burden, just so I know what’s going on.

The worm/ tick axis

“But what have worms got to do with ticks?” you ask. This. Recently we worm checked. The results were interesting. So interesting I thought maybe they were a mistake and got a second opinion.

The horse I considered most likely to have a high worm burden had an egg count of zero. She is also the only horse who had body ticks, tiny little blood suckers all over her body. She is the horse who reacts badly to insects and gets itchy just looking at a fly.

And then there is the horse I NEVER worry about. The three year old filly, with the perfect weight and shining vitality. The one who hardly ever had a tick on her and zero reactivity. She had a fecal egg count of 4,700. Four thousand seven hundred!!! I’ve never had a count that high. New lab, maybe it was a mistake? Called the vet, who said don’t worry, young horses often have high counts, just worm her.

What does this all mean?

Do we need worms?

Of course I should have rushed out and bought the chemicals. But I didn’t. I held my natural horse carer ground. She’s young, she needs to build immunity and maybe nature knows more than I do? Maybe she needs those worms? If I wipe them all out now, how will that affect her immunity building? Maybe we’re back to iron levels now, and how they help protect against infectious disease?

In the other side of my brain, all the vets, trainers and other expert voices from my past life are screaming, “Worm her, worm her, worm her!” So I compromised. I added diatamaceous earth and neem powder to her food. After a month I retested with my trusted friend Pauhla Whitaker, worm enthusiast extraodinaire. FEC down to 945.

The Chemical Challenge

Why, at this stage, did I decide to do the chemical thing? I’m not quite sure looking back. Maybe because she’s not mine? Maybe because those knowledgeable voices wore me down? Maybe I thought the risk of not worming her greater than any potential challenge to the body of a healthy young horse? Maybe because I needed the next piece in the puzzle? Whatever. I wormed her with moxidectrin.

2 days later she has a tick bite that swells up like a plum. Then another. Luckily that phase only lasted a couple of days, thanks to intervention with essential oils. But since then she has more ticks on a regular basis.

In every other way she looks as healthy as ever. When I offer her herbs she takes a little of this or that, but her eating is not urgent, as it is when a horse really needs the herb offered. So she feels fine. Is her new sensitivity a coincidence? I think not. Somehow, having her worms wiped out made her more attractive to ticks.

Ticks win

So this is where I am at with the original question. Ticks and worms are part of the equine eco-system. They may help horses control iron by blood letting. High iron leads to increased risk of infectious disease, poor mineral uptake, and metabolic distress. So ticks help horses.

But what about the disease they carry? Piroplasmosis usually attacks stressed horses, weakening an animal who is already challenged, hastening its death. This is also beneficial to a wild horse. No long, drawn out suffering. So a good thing.

In addition, there may be some sort of balance between worm load and resistance to insects (and skin sensitivity). It is possible that human’s over aggressive control of parasites contributes to some common health problems.

Too much of a good thing?

I’m not saying you should start letting ticks take over your horses, or that wormers will become obsolete. As long as your horses are confined (no matter how large the area) you are responsible for making sure they get what they need.

In the wild, horses would balance their worm load by seeking out and eating anthelmintic plants, clay or charcoal. They protect themselves from insect infestation by rolling in dirt, or aromatic plants, or submerging themselves in water. Birds would also help keep them free of insects by picking them off their backs.

In a domestic environment, horses are usually deprived of any chance for self-medication, itself a stress. But you can provide your horses the herbs they crave, by putting some herbs in bowls and letting your horse choose which ones he would like to eat. For worm control I offer, wormwood, neem leaf powder, milk thistle seed, and green clay.

I protect my horses (and dogs) from ticks using a blend of diatamaceous earth, clay and neem leaf powder, imitating a good roll in the dirt by rubbing it through their mane and coat. And I play the role of a bird by manually removing the bugs.

The more you can mimic nature and provide a horse’s natural needs, the less need you will have -if any- for chemicals.  Anything toxic enough to kill ticks for 30 days, challenges a horse’s bio-system rather than supporting it, reducing their natural bug resistance in the long run. Plus the ‘total destruction’ approach damages the balance of nature in other ways we have not yet discovered.

Well, that’s my opinion anyway! What do you think?

 

All you need is love!

Horses and Prasado on clean up duty
Horses and Prasado on clean up duty

This week we are busy getting ready for the first Exploring Horse camp in Portugal. Tents scrubbed and re-kitted, menus planned, paths cleared, we are a-bustle. Even the horses do their bit when there’s a good patch of grass that needs mowing. It’s exciting.

Throughout the activity I am in an introspective mode (partly the outcome of an injured knee, wherein lies another story!). I am not thinking, or planning  – my plan is always the same, to flow with what is.

I am burrowing into myself, allowing pictures, thoughts, memories to float by as reminders of subjects we might touch on in the workshop. Then I let them go and we will see what happens. You could say I am trying to clarify what it is I am hoping to share over the next week.

In this introspective mode, my partner and I have been talking. One of the subjects that has come up is the way horses respond to me, and why. It’s not something that is easy for me to see, “Nayana’s special touch with horses”. To me it is ordinary, the way things are, and my belief is that anyone can have that touch if they want it. It’s what I’m trying to teach all these years.

Prasado and I met on horseback, and a horse (MY horse!) caused me to fly from California to New Mexico for a weekend visit that has never ended. So, horses have always been a theme in our life. But his brain has never been eaten by the horse bug (his term) in the same way mine has.

He was a cowboy, the fun of horses was the unity felt when working with them, he didn’t really ‘get’ my constant fascination with their inner workings, although he has always been part of our various horse-caring set-ups. Anyway,…. he has been watching me and my horse craziness for over 30 years and often noted the attraction horses had to hang out with me, but thought it was something unique to me.

Now, after 8 months of living with the horses as a constant presence, ruled by their rhythms and needs, listening to them and learning their language more fully, he has the touch too! He is calling it trust, they trust him, which is one way of putting it. But why? Because we are an integral part of the physical and energetic function of the herd. Our neural networks are familiar to each other. Our flow is their flow. We are attuned.

I can tune-in very quickly to any herd anywhere I go, because ultimately we’re all one herd and I’ve had a lot of practice. But it’s easier in the beginning to attune yourself to one horse, or one herd. That’s what we invite you to do here, experience that feeling of harmonious flow that I am calling attunement, which is the key to good horsemanship.

So what is the key to attunement?

Sharing a joke with The Dood
Sharing a joke with The Dood

In me, for whatever reason – nature, nurture, being dropped in a pile of horse poo as a baby! – this ability to tune-in developed with no effort at an early age. I have spent my life nurturing and expanding and understanding this ability.

I have also been committed to helping others develop ‘the touch’ themselves, inventing games and exercises based on my own life experience. And I have trained horses to train people to have the ‘touch’ on three continents.

All the time I have been growing and learning, leaving behind what no longer worked for me, absorbing that which did. At this moment in time, as I review this journey, I see that the only constant, unchanging element has been LOVE.

It was this love, this heart expanding attraction, that led me to horses as a toddler. It is this love that has always caused me to look out for the horse’s best interest, and has driven me to learn what horses truly need in order to be healthy and happy. Because I love horses, they have been an integral part of learning about myself, which has led me to be able to know myself better, recognize my own self-interest and put it aside, or align it with that of the horse.

I could get into a whole discussion about ‘What is love’ here, but let me just clarify. When I say ‘love’, I don’t mean a pink hearts and roses sort of  love that carries you away, or the sort of love that wants the other to fulfil your emotional needs.  I mean lovingness, that truly sees the other without demands or projection. Love that is simply happy in the other’s existence.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t attracted to a person who loves them unconditionally and cares for them as best they can. I say as best they can, because my idea of what constitutes best care and how I work with horses has changed over the years, yet horses have always responded to me the same way.

Whether training Western or English, no matter what the tack or the method, the horses I work with end up happy, confident, and connected. So the conclusion I draw is that the intention, the feeling of lovingness, is what horses respond to.

It’s not important to them whether the love comes from a kid feeding a pony stale bread in a muddy field in Wales, a cowgirl with a string of horses in a dusty Oregon corral, or a holistic health specialist with 50 acres of Portuguese hillside at her disposal.

So, what does it take to develop that magic touch, to attune yourself to horses so they are attracted to you and you are accepted into the herd without hesitation? So that whatever you choose to ‘do’ with a horse is based on mutual enjoyment? Three simple things:

LOVE, AWARENESS, UNDERSTANDING.

It’s not much, but it’s everything. And here, in this beautiful natural environment, with a herd of empowered horses, is the perfect place to supercharge your lovingness and nourish your soul. Horse lovers welcome any time, contact me for more info.attunement

A walk in the woods

Spring is sprung

It’s starting to feel Spring-like around here, the grasses are a bright edible green, dandelion leaves are juicy and irrestible, Lesser celandine sets yellow sparks in the undergrowth. Everyone shouting, “Eat me, eat me”. Unfortunately for the horses they are mostly on the other side of the fence. The land the horses live on is in the process of regeneration, most of the grasses were ripped out or crushed in the process of clearing out old tree stumps and they have to search hard for the juicy bits.

Give us a choice!

L1070866Now, hardcore, fundamentalist, barefoot horse practitioners would say I am in an enviable position, that horses are not meant to eat grass at all and great that they have to work so hard for their food. In many ways I agree. Horses fed on industrial-grade mono-culture grass (which is what modern farming practices have condemned us to) are getting too much sugar and protein, not enough variety and no choice. All of which leads to laminitis, metabolic syndrome and a host of other ‘normal’ equine illnesses. But is all grass bad?

In a natural environment a horse’s diet changes throughout the year, they can choose which plants they want to eat, and counteract toxins by eating clay or charcoal, or a neutralising plant. Given a choice (which our horse are) horses do not necessarily choose the greenest grass, in fact, will usually avoid the greenest grass in favour of longer, more fibrous grasses. Our horses also like to eat oak leaves, heather and gorse.

Watch and learn

I often sit and watch what the herd is eating when I let them out on to the lusher areas of the property. They go through the mass of greenery, noses twitching, carefully selecting exactly the blades of grass and leaves they want. It reminds me of the way I load up a fork from my plate, a little of this, a little of that, a mixture of all the good things, ‘just so’, to please my palate.

I have noticed that as we move into Spring, the time when Chinese medicine says we should eat green things to support the liver, the horses seek out the bright green stuff more avidly.

A walk in the woods

L1070875So on days like today, when the sun is warm and the birdsong provocative, the Call of the Green gets too much for us and we have to go for a walk. It would be impossible to leave anyone behind on such an outing, so we take them all. We put a couple of key characters on a halter so we don’t have any unfortunate incidents with the neighbour’s hay field (it has been known!) and off we go, down to the woods for a picnic. There are few pleasures greater in life than this sort of walk together. To catch a glimpse of it click here.

Moving to Portugal, five month review

mare and foal unloading from horse transporter
Unloading in Portugal, the truck could go no further down our drive so we walked home.

It’s five months today since the horses and I arrived here in Portugal, exhausted, dislocated – and relieved. At least I was relieved. The horses simply shook themselves off, snorted, and checked out the local grass as they came off the truck. Then we set out on the one kilometre walk that would complete our journey (the truck could go no further down the dirt road).

The journey begins

Three days earlier six horses and myself had set out from Israel on an epic journey. Six unsophisticated, backwoods horses who had never been on a horse lorry before, let alone a plane, and me, their over-protective, natural horse-keeping, essential oil wielding chaperone.  I chose to travel with the horses to ease their journey in any way I could, to protect them from being treated like just another pallet of cargo; and to share this experience with them, a sort of penance for what we were putting them through. 

Flying horses

The transport business doesn’t see living beings, just objects in transit – as anyone who has flown on a low-cost airline will agree. To me each horse is a special individual whose needs and comforts must be considered. Explain that to the man on the forklift as he screeches and crashes and jerks along with my frightened horses in a container… I think he got the point in the end, or maybe he was just terrified by the mad-eyed woman yelling at him!

We flew from Tel Aviv to Brussels on a Monday evening. In Brussels we were met the horse transporter – and my horse from England. Three days previously the transport guys had whisked him out of the grassy, Cotswold field, where he had lived a quiet life of semi-retirement for the last five years, loaded on a horse transporter for the 3rd time in his life, and ‘poof’, his old life was gone. The only uplifting moment for me on the whole journey was when I called his name from outside the lorry (I wasn’t allowed on) and saw his ears rotating keenly, trying to find my voice. I hadn’t seen him for over a year. 

Onward!

I had chosen this transport company, despite them being the most expensive, because they had promised we could decide on arrival in Brussels if my Israeli horses were fit to travel further, or if it would be better to rest close to the airport and continue the next day. Sucker! It immediately became clear that the well-being of the animals was less important than the well-being of the owner’s bank balance. After a useless, tearful tantrum outside the customs terminal we loaded up my tired and accepting horses, so brave and trusting, and set off into the night. Me and my friend Zena, who had also met us in Brussels, in a rental car.  

We drove till mid afternoon, overnighting somewhere in rural France, set off before dawn, drove through the day, overnighted in rural Spain, started out again at 4 a.m., and arrived at the quinta by mid-morning. As I said, exhausted and dislocated, despite the cheerful reception from the rest of the crew (my partner Prasado, and Bill, Gali and Yulie, who own the quinta and four of the horses), who had arrived the day before.

Arrival

Still, we had arrived. The hardest thing I had ever done was already starting to fade away into memory, like childbirth, as I walked beside my beloved horse and led the herd down the dusty track towards their new life.

At the top of the hill, just as we passed the boundary to the quinta, we paused and surveyed the view, my first view of our new home: the Serra da Estrela mountains to our left; tree dotted hills sinking and rising around us; the track before us heading on down the hill between aromatic pine, eucalyptus, lavender, cistus and rosemary – an aromatherapists shopping cart. A deep breath, an inner smile, we are home.

But that was just the beginning…..
Natural horses share companionship with woman

Where are we today?

Five months later, I sit here on the hilltop as the herd munches happily all around me and it is good. The horses are relaxed, healthy, well-fed, the herd dynamic is ‘right’, no-one lives in fear. But gosh, it’s been a journey to get here. For me it has been fascinating, stressful, joyous and educational as I watch this group of horses, each one with his/her own history (and baggage), form a coherent herd living an ‘as natural’ lifestyle – with a little help from the human herd.

The horses have adapted to their new environment, we humans have figured out how to provide them with enough food and shelter, nursed them through maggot attacks and lameness, slowly allowed them to roam more freely over the sort of landscape that most people would consider unsuitable for horses. And we are thriving. So many stories, so many lessons, I will share them with you in other blogs, alongside our continuing adventure. But in honour of the 5 monthiversary here are:

Five heartfelt memories!

1. Going down to the belly of the cargo plane, where the horses stood 3 to a crate, stacks of boxes piled all around, whickering at me as I step in to check how they are. Such a contrast, their quiet kindness against the harsh metal and hellish noise.

2. The horses have shown such trust throughout this whole process, from the days of preparing for the journey, through those 4 long days on the road, and the times of uncertainty, as we tried to provide the feed and shelter they needed in a land we knew nothing of. The trust has never wavered, only grown as we continue to Explore Horse and expand our horizons.


3. The way O-sensei, the English horse, picked up with Prasado and I as if we had never been apart, even after 5 years of not living together. We were his herd in those first hard days when the other horses chased him and refused all his polite and gentle overtures, he would have moved into our tent if the deck would have held him!


4. Those first days of freedom, when we cautiously opened the fences and I escorted the horses around the property to see how they handled the steep hillsides, strewn with deadfall and forestry litter, such pleasure to explore their new world together.


5. Today, not quite a memory yet, but a significant moment, they all stand in the shelter munching hay, having chosen to rush home from the oak valley when the rain started to pour, and I know I have listened to them as faithfully as I can and am providing the best of both worlds, domestic comforts and natural needs and the freedom to choose what they prefer.


So, here at Quinta Regadas do Seco life is good and I would love to share our beautiful space with you. I invite anyone who would like to learn about horses in a natural environment to come to one of our workshops. You will learn about natural horse care, how you can be your horse’s most trusted friend and refine your horsemanship skills on many levels. For more details on workshops and what you will learn go to the Exploring Horse Camp page here, or for dates and to reserve your place go to the Essential Animals website, or leave a comment here and I will answer any questions you have

.Natural horses eat all the time

The herd today, calm and connected, eating together at the top of the hill